Will Kim’s Russia Visit Help Develop China’s Northeast?

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Op-Ed Commentary: Chris Devonshire-Ellis

Aug. 22 – With the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il on his first visit to Russia in nine years, questions can be asked about how much this means for the redevelopment of much of the Northeast Asia seaboard, including that of Northeast China.

For Kim – who also visited Beijing and Dalian in May this year – to have undertaken visits to both his allied neighbors within such a short period of time is unusual. He is apparently fearful of travel, refuses to fly, and only goes abroad via a specially armed train. His son however, heir apparent Kim Jong-un, has been Swiss educated and appears rather less paranoid – although his ability to take aircraft journeys will no doubt be tested once he takes the reigns. Assassination by aircraft malfunction has long been a feature of hard-line communist regimes.

Kim junior, who accompanied his father to China earlier in the year, is not present on this trip to Russia however; his name not appearing in the list of senior DPRK officials visiting the country. His visit to China, during which he met with President Hu Jintao, was widely interpreted as being part of a passage of rite – a ritual in which the essential oils of Chinese baptism and approval were requested to be placed upon him. That is not going to be so in Russia, signifying a job already done?

Kim Jong-il’s tour, which has seen him cross between North Korea and Russia at the border city of Khasan, is apparently taking in power plant and other infrastructure projects. He has already visited a hydroelectric plant in Amur, which feeds North Korea with much of its electricity. There are proposals from both Russia and South Korea that the same plant also feed energy through to Seoul. Both are keen – Russia as a source of much needed regional income, and Seoul as a solution to part of its energy requirements. Whether Kim will play ball remains to be seen, and one can expect some hard bargaining concerning South Korean aid in return for Kim’s approval to be a feature of Northeast Asian politics this fall.

Kim’s tour is restricted on this occasion mainly to Primorsky Krai, the province of Russia that sits just east and north of China and includes all of the winter ice-free Northeast Asian Eastern Seaboard. Vladivostok is the provincial capital, and it is the venue for APEC 2012 – the city is undergoing a massive overhaul for the event. That the region has long been a trouble spot and off-limits for most of the past 100 years is understating it. Russia lost its ill-advised 1904-05 war with Japan off this coast, a situation which both stopped Russia’s colonial expansionism and hastened the fall of the Tsar. It also saw Port Arthur (now Dalian) fall from being Russian territory into the hands of the Japanese.

During World War I, much of Russia’s attention was diverted towards the Western ports and the protection of seas around Odessa, the Crimea, Arctic routes, and the Black Sea. Fighting Germany devastated an already demoralized Imperial force, and the Eastern Seaboard went largely undeveloped. Come the rise of Russia during the Soviet era, during World War II and beyond the Soviets redeveloped Vladivostok as a base for nuclear submarines and warships, mainly as part of the Cold War front looking towards the Western seaboard of the United States. Top secret and inaccessible, it has to be remembered that it remained that way beyond the shooting down of a Korean Air passenger jumbo jet close to the territory back in 1983.

The Korean War didn’t help matters much either, leaving a divided Korean Peninsula, and highly charged military borders all the way along the coast. Essentially bringing the might of the U.S. military eyeball-to-eyeball with China, with just North Korea in-between has further made any meaningful development of the northeast Asian coast unfeasible.

Consequently, much of Primorsky Krai has been left deliberately unexploited – the difficulties of getting anywhere close to a strategic military deterrent has left the province unloved, largely forgotten, and undeveloped. It is the most backward province in today’s Russia. Likewise, one can say the same about Jilin Province, which borders North Korea. Although it has latterly made more money in terms of being a service center for Chinese goods exported to the DPRK, it does so with considerable State funding. It has long had a reputation as part of China’s rust belt, with Changchun, the provincial capital, only really been kept afloat due to the local presence of FAW, China’s largest auto manufacturer. Think China’s version of Detroit, and that’s Changchun. Although on the back of the tremendous growth of China’s domestic auto industry the city has now become wealthy, that is not necessarily the case elsewhere. Other provincial cities such as Dandong, Hunchun and Jilin City itself are increasingly looking at trade and commerce with North Korea as means to wean themselves off state support and make a decent living. The development of the Changjitu regional border zone is a case in point in trying to steer Jilin Province towards increased DPRK trade.

Heilongjiang Province, further north, has an additional problem – it is land bound, separated from direct access to the East Sea by the stretch of Russia that curls around Northeast China like a serpent. That causes logistics problems for Heilongjiang exports, that have to travel that much further south to Changchun, and then to Dalian to get to a port. China and Russia have developed a direct rail link between Changchun and Vladivostok and this shows strong signs that Russia in particular wants to develop Vladivostok in addition to the other, smaller Eastern Russian ports of Zarubino and Posyet.

Meanwhile, even Mongolia is getting in on the act. Wary of having all its natural resources – as is currently the case – exported via China, they are working with the Russians to develop a rail link that will see Mongolian exports push down through Russia, possibly taking in North Korea, as well as existing via Vladivostok. A Mongolian-staffed export service station is already extant at the port.

With all that development on the way, and with South Korea waiting in the wings, Kim Jong-il may find himself outmaneuvered by sheer economic progress. The fact that much of that pressure is coming from friendly nations may yet tip the balance to reform in North Korea to a more progressive platform than has recently been the case. There are encouraging signs that this may occur. North Korea has just opened a joint venture free trade zone with China at Hwanggumpyong. Marx, still revered in this most isolated of nations, may yet have his policies slowly discarded should Messers. Hu and Medvedev have their way.

Chris Devonshire-Ellis is the founding partner and principal of Dezan Shira & Associates, and is vice chair of the Greater Tumen Initiative business advisory council, a UNDP sponsored body that deals with North Korea, China, Russia, Mongolia and South Korea. He can be contacted at chris@dezshira.com.

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